Ahead of Pope Francis' visit, clerics, activists lobby and pray for end to capital punishment

At St. Vincent De Paul Church in Germantown on Wednesday, pastor Sylvester Peterka (left), exonerated death-row inmate Harold Wilson (center), and other participants in a prayer rally against capital punishment join hands and sing after the announcement of the stay of execution for inmate Richard Glossip in Oklahoma. (CHARLES FOX/Staff Photographer)

Hoping to gain the attention of Pope Francis, activists and religious leaders gathered at an East Germantown church Wednesday to pray for criminal justice reform and the abolition of capital punishment in this country.

At St. Vincent De Paul Church in Germantown on Wednesday, pastor Sylvester Peterka (left), exonerated death-row inmate Harold Wilson (center), and other participants in a prayer rally against capital punishment join hands and sing after the announcement of the stay of execution for inmate Richard Glossip in Oklahoma. (CHARLES FOX/Staff Photographer) Gallery: Ahead of Pope Francis' visit, clerics, activists lobby and pray for end to capital punishment

The event's keynote speaker was Harold Wilson, who was convicted of a triple murder by a Philadelphia jury and sentenced to death in 1989, only to be exonerated in 2005 after DNA evidence led a new jury to acquit on all charges. During the trial that would eventually lead to his acquittal, Wilson was held at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility - the same prison the pope will visit Sept. 27.

"What I would like to witness from the Holy Father is to speak to people in society, mainly the legislators, send a message out to the legislators," said Wilson, 57, in an interview. "No more killing in our name, that it is not our will to kill people who kill people."

Pope Francis has voiced his opposition to capital punishment before, calling it "an offense against the inviolability of life and the human person."

He has also called for better treatment of prisoners worldwide. The Catholic Church's vocal opposition to capital punishment is a relatively recent development, beginning only in the second half of the 20th century.

Those who gathered at Wednesday's event, which was organized by the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Witness to Innocence and held at St. Vincent De Paul Church, are part of a growing chorus of voices decrying the high level of incarceration in the United States. Prison and sentencing reforms have recently been touted as rare issues of bipartisan consensus, and attention will only heighten when Francis visits Curran-Fromhold.

But capital punishment remains a flash point.

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has taken fire within his own party since February when he put a moratorium on executions. In making the decision, Wolf declared that Pennsylvania's death-penalty system is "error-prone, expensive, and anything but infallible."

Wolf was praised at Wednesday's event and one speaker excoriated District Attorney Seth Williams for fighting the moratorium in court.

"The moratorium is under attack," said Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, specifically citing Williams. "Now he's really pushing for people that we believe are innocent to be executed."

There are almost 200 inmates on Pennsylvania's death row.

Unlike Wolf - who, in his moratorium order, wrote, "The guilty deserve no compassion, and receive none from me" - those gathered in Germantown focused as much on forgiveness and grace as they did on systemic issues like racial disparities and incompetent counsel for poor defendants.

At the beginning of the service, Witness to Innocence executive director Magdaleno Rose-Avila noted the tragic timing: Oklahoma was slated to execute a prisoner Wednesday afternoon.

But as the attendants sang and prayed and listened to speeches, news emerged that an Oklahoma court had granted a last-minute stay of Richard Glossip's execution.

When the Rev. Sylvester Peterka, St. Vincent's pastor, announced the news, the crowd took to its feet in applause.

"I think the prayers really were answered," said Prentis Dorsey, 27, who does volunteer work at the church. "God really answers these prayers. . . . When we come together as a unit, it's like we touch God, like we touch the hem of his garment."


mnussbaum@phillynews.com

@matthewnussbaum